Why are “agencies” hiring Product Managers?

It’s a start of a new year and you may be looking for a new challenge as part of your New Year resolutions. When looking for a new job, you would usually look at other companies that build their own products for their own customers, and most importantly, have a Product Manager position. But now you have another choice: agencies.

I’m not talking about the traditional digital/media agency here. I’m talking about a different breed. These “agencies” offer Dev and UX resources to help others build products and tend to refer to themselves as any of the following: product consultants, product development firm/shop, design firm/shop, etc.

Their main goal is to help you build a product, not just a website or a useless app.

Some of these firms either started out as an outsourced dev shop and then added design/UX to their toolkit or started out as a design/UX shop and added development to their services. Now they are looking for Product Managers!

But why?

To answer this question, I’ve spoken with a number of these product development firms, including Neo, Happy Fun Corp., Fueled, Prolific Interactive and Thoughtworks, to understand why they need Product Managers. Here’s what I’ve learned during the conversations:

They want Product Mangers…

To drive prioritization. During the design or development, things may fall behind schedule. A PM needs to be there to decide how to get the team back on course so they can meet the deadline, and this may mean deciding not to do a feature that’s promised or only doing a portion of it. Furthermore, the PM would also be used to help balance the sometimes conflicting needs of Design and Dev.

To be technical and work with the development team. A Technical PM is somebody who understands technology to a point where they can have productive conversations with the Dev team and help resolve issues, either through changing prioritization or raising the alarm to senior members at the firm and the client. Another bonus for having a Technical PM is that they know what’s doable and what’s not when working with clients during the ideation phase (this could save frustration and the relationship during the implementation phase).

To drive the day-to-day. The Product Manager is the project manager/scrum master/delivery manager. They are responsible for the team meeting all checkpoints and milestones, and most importantly, there is an end-product/result at the end of the engagement.

To work directly with clients. Although the principal or client services team owns the client relationship, they want PMs involved in the discussion to help drive value for their clients and own the communication channel. A plus for the firm is that the principal/client services team can now concentrate on winning new business.


What are the benefits of working at design firms?

So they are hiring, how is this beneficial to you?

Lots of projects! At your current job, you might be bored of working on the same site or product for the last X years. At these product firms, you’ll always have a new project to look forward to. Also, these projects come from a variety of sources, from small startups who can’t afford a dev team and need to build something right away to big companies who are looking for inspiration outside their cubicles or are resource-strapped.

You’ll learn more. Because you are working on so many projects of different kinds, you’ll have the opportunity to become a subject-matter expert in a number of areas since you’ll be working on products targeted towards different niches and demographics.

You’ll get to work with clients. Although this can be frustrating at times, learning how to manage stakeholders is one of the most critical aspects of being a Product Manager. You’ll get plenty of practice here.

You’ll get to work with talented people. Designers and developers at these firms are there for the same reason: the number of projects and the type of projects. They’ll never get bored and are always constantly challenged. Smart people want to be challenged and grow on a daily basis.

They have nice offices. Seriously! They need to win clients and having a cool, hip office certainly helps! Check out the office at Fueled:

The office at Fueled.

There’re also some considerations…

Before you start running to these firms to apply for a job, think about the following:

You’ll probably not get a chance to iterate on the product. I’m a firm believer that you can never get the product right the first time, it’s just impossible. Products need to be iterated on because there’s only so much that you can learn during the discovery phase. Some firms like Neo are pushing Lean to their clients, but it’s a hard fight.

Crazy timelines. “The client needs this delivered in 4 weeks?” Yeah, get on it.

Remote development teams. Not all firms have a local dev team that you can talk to, which makes it harder to deliver quality. Time to brush up on your communication skills and install Slack, Skype, etc.

Working on multiple projects at a given time. One firm said their average PM works on 3 projects at a given time. Being a very hands-on PM, I find this very hard to stomach.

Be wary of the position. From at least two firms, I got the impression that this is really a project management role with a little bit of product management. One firm splits PMs into two categories: strategy, you work with clients, ideate and wireframe, and execution, you get handed the wireframes and work on the day-to-day effort. Take the time to really understand what the role is about and what their expectations are of you so that they are no surprises once you start.


Of course, each firm is going to have their own different needs. Remember, interviewing is like dating, take the time to talk to everybody at the firm, from potential bosses, other PMs there, client services, UX and the Dev teams so you know what you’re getting into.

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